An American in Fulham

‘Dempsey's late equaliser caused a drowsy American to rise from his sacred couch and send his voice skyward, filled with pure exultation’

To a jogger passing by my window, I was just another American male screaming at his TV on a Sunday. Football does that to me. Not American football. The English game. Especially when Americans are playing it overseas.

The flickering images in front of me were not the helmeted NFL behemoths of Philadelphia versus Dallas on CBS. It was Fulham against Chelsea on Fox Soccer Channel in late December. Clint Dempsey, an American playing for Fulham, had just headed home the equaliser in the 90th minute, setting the team’s Craven Cottage stadium alight. At last, an American from Texas was spreading goodwill and cheer overseas (and being yellow-carded by the referee for removing his shirt in celebration). Dempsey scored both goals in that 2-2 draw, and as he stood tall that afternoon in London I felt an unusual swell of pride many miles away.

I also recalled how I’d begun 2008 at Craven Cottage, watching the same south-west London derby with a New Year’s Day fog rising beyond the stands from the shores of the Thames. London cops had laughed at my efforts to secure a last-minute ticket, saying the game had been sold out for weeks. Ticketless but determined, I was not about to halt my mission as hordes of fans marched towards the Cottage. A Japanese couple, in sparse English, said their third party had been stranded at Heathrow and sold me an excellent seat in the Johnny Haynes stand for just above face value.

Once inside, I was delighted to find the concession stands offering delicious Carlsberg lager. With every available pore I absorbed the brilliant atmosphere, knowing that nothing in America’s vast sportscape can match it. (Chicago’s Wrigley Field comes to mind, but the abundance of the baseball schedule mutes the Northside fanfare a bit.) For an American sportswriter abroad, the year was starting with an epiphany as I stood among an English football crowd with the smell of Bovril seeping out of the floorboards. The last match I had been to was a European Champions’ League match at Chelsea’s massive Stamford Bridge nearby. By comparison, the Cottage made it seem like a EuroDisney outland. In Chelsea’s official “Shed Bar”, I bought a lager and the Australian bartender seized the opportunity to pass useless Irish pound notes to this unknowing American. During Fulham’s pre-game exercises, I took in the heartwarming sight of English children in the front row and the aisles wearing Fulham replica shirts bearing “Dempsey” on the back. This helped me begin a slow abandonment of my keep-a-low-profile-you’re-American posture. Who cares about the crass American fatcats buying up Premier League teams, or the bumbling of George W. Bush or that our embassy in Grosvenor Square resembles a county prison in West Virginia? Clint Dempsey has taken to the field!

For several seasons in the US, I’d watched Dempsey toiling for the New England Revolution in Major League Soccer. It is a circus league plagued by terrible stadiums, teams with Euro-mockery names such as Real Salt Lake and dodgy ownership groups. The few European sportswriters who occasionally acknowledge the league seem to have a misguided notion that MLS “hasn’t caught on” because of the low standard of play. No, MLS suffers because it fails to register on the overcrowded summer menu of US sport. However, the whole experience is elevated when Posh Beckham decides she wants to do some shopping in Los Angeles, so her husband David decides to accompany her and wear the colours of LA Galaxy for a brief stint on the MLS injured list.

In a shroud of economic doom and gloom, it is nice to have a sporting distraction from afar, someone requiring an effort to follow, a weekly purpose and repository for hope and glory and old-fashioned athletic triumph. It is not much bother, really, because US soccer fans are accustomed to hunting down pubs with the right satellite service or paying for their own dish to receive Fox Soccer Channel, Gol TV and Setanta pay-per-view feeds.

Yes, Clint’s middle name is Drew, and Fulham lead the league in draws, and Americans hate kiss-your-sister ties of any kind in their athletic competitions. But Dempsey’s excellence against the mighty Chelsea provided a nice bookend for a year. The sight of the shirtless Clint sprinting behind the goal in celebration was a genuine thrill. It caused a drowsy, post-holiday American to rise from his sacred couch and send his voice skyward, filled with pure exultation.

Decades ago in these United States, the name Dempsey was emblematic of a certain Irish-heritage boxer hailing from Manassa, Colorado. We have a new Dempsey, and he’s keeping a venerable London football club in mid-table with his on-field vigour, and for that I thank him.

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